In the auditory system voltage-activated currents mediated by potassium channels Kv1.1 and Kv3.1b and their interaction with sodium inward currents play a crucial role for computational function. However, it is unresolved how these potassium channels are developmentally regulated. We have therefore combined a biochemical investigation of Kv1.1 and Kv3.1b protein expression with electrophysiological recordings of membrane currents to characterize neuronal differentiation in the auditory brain stem of the chick. Differentiation in vitro was compared with cells prepared from corresponding embryonic stages in vivo. Using a computer model based on the empirical data we were then able to predict physiological properties of developing auditory brain stem neurons. In vivo Kv3.1b expression increased strongly between E10 and E14, a time of functional synaptogenesis in the auditory brainstem. We also found this increase of expression in vitro, again coinciding with synaptogenesis in the cultures. Whole-cell patch recordings revealed a corresponding increase of the (Kv3.1-like) high threshold potassium current. In contrast, Kv1.1 protein expression failed to increase in vitro, and changes in (Kv1.1-like) low threshold potassium current with time in culture were not significant. Electrophysiological recordings revealed that sodium inward currents increased with cultivation time. Thus, our data suggest that Kv3.1b expression occurs with the onset of functional synaptogenesis, while a different signal, absent from cultures of dissociated auditory brain stem, is needed for Kv1.1 expression. A biophysical model constructed with parameters from our recordings was used to investigate the functional impact of the currents mediated by these channels. We found that during development both high and low threshold potassium currents need to be increased in a concerted manner with the sodium conductance for the neurons to exhibit fast and phasic action potential firing and a narrow time window of coincidence detection. (C) 2009 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.